|VITAL SPEECHES OF THE DAY October 15, 2003.||
presented to Ohio Government Finance Officers Association,16th Annual Conference,Cincinnati, Ohio
by William L. Bainbridge, Ph.D.
President & CEO, SchoolMatch and
Distinguished Research Professor University of Dayton
Whenever I am introduced as a CEO or President I remember the tale
of a man in a hot air balloon who realized he was lost in southwestern
He reduced altitude and spotted a woman below. He descended a bit
more and shouted, "Excuse me,can you help me? I promised a friend I
would meet him an hour ago, but I don't know where I am."
The woman below replied, "You're in a hot air balloon hovering approximately 30 feet above the ground. You're between 40 and 41 degrees north latitude and between 59 and 60 degrees west longitude."
"You must be an accountant ," said the balloonist. "I am," replied the woman, "How did you know?" "Well," answered the balloonist, "everything you told me is, technically correct, but I've no idea what to make of your information, and the fact is I'm still lost. Frankly, you've not been much help at all. If anything, you've delayed my trip."
The woman below responded, "You must be in Management." "I am," replied the balloonist, "but how did you know?" "Well," said the woman, "you don't know where you are or where you're going. You have risen to where you are due to a large quantity of hot air. You made a promise, which you've no idea how to keep, and you expect people beneath you to solve your problems. The fact is you are in exactly the same position you were in before we met, but now, somehow, it's my fault."
It is a privilege to be here today. We consultants and researchers greatly respect the invaluable role of the financial officers who serve our public agencies.
Some administrative generalists, including yours truly, have often dreamed of working with financial officers who are in a position to say, "Go ahead--do whatever you like, there is plenty of money." Unfortunately, few of you, if any, are able to promote such a theme in this economic climate.
More often, most of you have to say, "Sorry we can't do that, the funds just aren't there." As tough as this is to hear in an era of difficult decisions and tight budgets, we are all in your debt-no pun intended-for guiding your agencies through these demanding times.
By way of introduction, you may be interested to know that making linkages between public spending and outcomes has been a principal focus of many of our studies at SchoolMatch.
The impetus for our new "School System Financial Analysis" has come from government and business leaders involved in school-business partnerships who want educational opportunities to be available to provide a talented, skilled work force for their community. They engage SchoolMatch teams of experienced public sector financial executives, like yourselves, working with seasoned school administrators, to serve as outside objective advisers and analysts. They assist the community and school system leaders with examining where the district stands in terms of managing financial resources for successful educational outcomes.
We focus on sound management of the school system's resources; the effective use of resources where opportunities for saving funds exist; and the education of community members about the connection between managing financial resources effectively and improving educational opportunities for children.
Our School System Financial Analysis examines the degree to which the administration of a school district follows sound financial practices. What makes us different from other reviews is that each school district population is examined against populations nationwide with similar demographics, some of which are currently achieving effectiveness or have firmly established the conditions of effectiveness.
The SchoolMatch approach compares student populations rather than school systems in order to provide more fair, accurate, and comprehensive cohort comparisons.
In searching for a theme today, I thought it would be good to solicit advice from our more than 70 consultants across the country, mostly with school administrative backgrounds. Their suggestions included areas of governance that finance officers may be responsible for in the organizations they serve, from local government to public schools to state government agencies. The suggestions included:
As is readily apparent, most of the topics my colleagues suggested focused on management action areas in which all of you have a great deal of experience and expertise, likely greater than mine. Actually, our current and former public sector CEO consultants came up with over thirty topics for us to cover today.
However, unifying their suggestions was the underlying theme of the importance of strong, appropriate governance models and policies in creating and maintaining effective management practices.
One thing we all have in common is we need to work with public boards, commissions and legislatures and we need to assist them in developing sound policies. In our work at SchoolMatch, increasingly, the connections between financial management, accountability, governance, board relations and policy become paramount. Today, we are spending more and more time on financial and governance issues.
Consequently, today's two main themes have to do with FIRST the changing role of all types of public boards and legislative bodies and the administrators they employ and SECOND the policies we need to improve for school systems that serve our children and communities.
While community service has historically been a rewarding civic duty, service on public boards requires a huge commitment in terms of time, energy, intelligence and common sense. Once board members have been elected or appointed and duly sworn in, frequently the proverbial goat rodeo begins. In the education sector, we have some board members running for election because they want to be helpful in improving our schools.
Regrettably, some run for office to act on vendettas because their daughter did not make the cheerleading team, their nephew was not hired as a teacher or they themselves were not re-employed. Others see board service as a stepping stone to higher offices or political aspirations. They know that Buckeye political legend James A. Rhodes started out as a school board member before he was elected Columbus City Auditor, Mayor, Ohio Auditor of State and Governor.
Board members are not expected to be public administration professionals. This is often misunderstood by the public, and in some cases by board members themselves.
Few topics gain more attention in local newspapers and in the electronic media than continuing friction among public board or legislative body members and between boards and administrators.
Whether you serve as finance officer for a city council, board of county commissioners, board of education, board of corrections, recreation board, airport authority board, public utilities commission, or any of the multitude of legislative and quasi-legislative bodies represented by guardians of the public trust in this room, the board/administrative relationship is key to success.
The increasingly negative spotlight in many communities makes it more difficult to recruit good financial and other administrators and tougher to interest community leaders in serving on such boards.
Nearly two decades ago the Ohio School Boards Association honored my friend and former boss, former Grandview Heights, Ohio, school board President and city councilman Roger C. Alban as an exemplary board member. The award characterized Alban, a business owner and Past President of the Builders Exchange, as an effective board member because:
The board, under the presidency of Roger Alban, "set the direction, made tough decisions, showed courage and held the public servants accountable." The Board did not interfere with the administration's obligation to manage the system and conduct day-to-day affairs.
Unfortunately, today we could use a few more Roger Albans serving as public board members. Few individuals possess the courage and determined principles necessary to improve our public sector services. It is, of course, the education sector we are most familiar with in our work.
As pointed out by an Iowa study published by the ERS, an Arlington, Virginia-based nonprofit research service, extensive on-site interviews revealed that "the understandings and beliefs of boards in high achieving school districts differed 'markedly' from those in low achieving districts." The study entitled "Effective Districts, School Boards and Student Achievement: A Comparison of Governance in High- and Low-Achieving Districts" concluded that effective district boards create seven conditions:
Regrettably, in 2003 many public boards are ineffective and create conditions that impair the ABILITY of their agencies to provide quality services for the publics they serve. Many boards demonstrate:
As a result, public service is being weakened by poor board leadership practices. It is enough to make one ask: "Roger Alban, where are you when we really need you?"
Our studies in school systems and counties across the nation demonstrate a need to focus more on setting policy and less on micro-managing. The 36 leaders who contributed to a recent New England-based study in the public sector made several recommendations for building board-administrator leadership team relationships, including the need to:
They advised boards and administrators to work more as teams and less as adversaries. Are there policy solutions for these conditions other than the cloning of Roger Alban?
Our SchoolMatch Advisory Board Chairman, Dr. M. Donald Thomas, has been a principal policy advisor to three state Governors. He and I believe the following considerations are in order:
Public sector governance requires strong leadership that establishes accountability for public personnel, but does not interfere with day-to-day decisions made by employees. Such leadership requires men and women who, like Roger Alban, understand the role of board members to set direction, make tough decisions, show courage and hold the agency accountable. Only then will all of our agencies truly operate for the benefit of all of our citizenry. Then also will public agencies receive the positive media coverage they deserve.
We are working for this kind of positive change with some success, especially in the education sector, and look forward to evidence of more progress in the future. In the meantime, we hope all of you will continue to have a great deal of patience, ability to cope with ambiguity and a willingness to work with a wide variety of personalities and perspectives in a highly political environment.
Geometry teaches us that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. In public policy issues, however, progress is seldom in a straight line. Countervailing forces dictate a zigzag line and the only way to meet your goals is to play to the end game. This will mean sometimes, if not often, giving up short term tactical advances to achieve the long term strategic goal. Don't be afraid to suffer a setback if it can promote your end game. And don't ever get angry! Make sure your work if first class and your decisions sound. This formula leads to success.
The second topic for today has to do with the related and complex issue of policies to improve the school systems that have a great impact on our communities. Research validated many times demonstrates a nearly straight-line relationship between school success and both property value and average income levels of residents. In other words the success of the schools has a GREAT impact on the tax revenues you need for your operations at the community, county or even state level.
Policy makers have endeavored to use a variety of solutions to help address the problems confronting America's schools.
This summer, University of Dayton Dean of the School of Education and Allied Professions Dr. Thomas J. Lasley II , SchoolMatch C.F.O. Dr. Steve Sundre and I published in the journal of the National Association of State Boards of Education 14 strategies we believe public officials can consider as they seek to deal with the unique problems confronting the young people.
Some of our recommendations require little or no investment of dollars, whereas others would entail funding obligations. All of the solutions have considerable research support and offer significant opportunity for success. They do not constitute the "art of the impossible." The suggestions include:
If increasing student success is the goal, then our 14-point agenda can be one research-based starting point for school reform. There are no silver bullets in educational reform, but there are ideas that now have sufficient research grounding to suggest that school boards and administrators who know how to put the right resources into the right ideas will begin to see student achievement grow.
In closing, as I look at this audience of movers and shakers in the public finance arena it makes me think of the new public sector CEO who was interviewing applicants for the position of divisional manager. He devised a simple test to select the most suitable person for the job. He asked each applicant the question, "What is two and two? "
The first interviewee was a young journalist, probably the same one who wrote the last story about your agency. His answer was "Twenty-two."
The second was a social worker. She said, "I don't know the answer but I'm glad we had time to discuss this important question."
The third applicant was an engineer. He pulled out a scientific computing calculator and showed the answer to be between 3.999 and 4.001.
The next person was a lawyer. He stated that in the case of Jenkins v Jones, two and two was proven to be four.
The last applicant was a financial officer in the agency. The new CEO asked him, "How much is two and two?"
The financial officer got up from her chair, went over to the door and closed it then came back and sat down. She leaned across the desk and said in a low voice, "How much do you want it to be?"
She got the job and is certainly of the type many County Commissioners, Mayors, School Superintendents, state agency Directors and other public sector CEO's might momentarily dream of working with in today's economy, but not really want.
Thank you. It would be a pleasure to take questions on any of the topics suggested by our consultants and raised in the beginning of my remarks, on the board- administrative relationship issue or the policies we have recommended.
Back to Articles